Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers

ISBN: 0716727188
ISBN 13: 9780716727187
By: Robert M. Sapolksy Robert M. Sapolksy

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About this book

A Guide to Stress, Stress-Related Diseases, and CopingCombining cutting edge research with a healthy dose of humor and practical advice, Sapolsky explains how prolonged stress causes or intensifies mental afflictions.

Reader's Thoughts


This is a pretty good book on stress, in animals as well as humans. I like his scientific style (though as with most academics, his prose style could be improved). He has a straight-forward way of presenting complex information without dumbing it down too much (I've been comparing it to an actual endocrinology textbook). The end of the book also provides a much-needed element of perspective on what it really means to be poor in America, discussing why universal health care won't make a huge difference to the health of the poor, for example.

Charles Gallagher

In Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers, acclaimed biologist Robert Sapolsky combines humor and science to deliver fascinating information about stress and the many diseases caused by stress. As far as nonfiction goes, this was the most entertaining and informative book I have read. This book would be great for anyone interested in learning the science behind stress and it's effects on the body while enjoying themselves.


Excellent book about the body's stress response written in a fun and engaging style. This book is so well written that even someone with absolutely no background in medicine or biology could understand this neat little find. I've even used quotes out of this book for my clients--it's really that bite sized and engaging. Must read. Probably the best academic book disguised as popular non-fiction I've ever read.


Should be compulsory reading for every high school biology student. A thorough dismantling of the reductionist cell biology mindset of the 20th century, Sapolsky shows you how very complex and intricate the interaction is between organism and environment, and how 'genes' may be overrated in a lot of ways.

Chris Herdt

This book is a good introduction to stress and its effects on physiology and psychology (Nicola's area of expertise). Although it is written for a lay audience, I often got the feeling it was written for a lay audience of primarily MDs.By the end of the book, you will feel like you and epinephrine, norepinephrine, and glucocorticoids are all old friends--but in spite of the terminology, it is really an easy read and full of good humor and interesting anecdotes (e.g. hyenas are very peculiar).Here is a quote, taken out of context, that I enjoyed:"Every child cannot grow up to be president; it turned out that merely by holding hands and singing folk songs we couldn't end all war, and hunger does not disappear just by visualizing a world without it....Would that it were so. And shame on those who would sell this view."You may not like all of his opinions. Sapolsky is an unapologetic atheist, but appears to have a high opinion of many religious people. He also speaks frankly about sex. He also believes in animal testing, although he thinks that some past tests went too far.

Chung Chin

This is a book packed full of information on how stress can cause our body to go haywire. You will find explanation for how stress affects your weight, sleep, and health in general.Although there are still lots of jargon and terms in the book that you will find alien, the explanation is given in the most simple way possible, making it an accessible material in general.However, after reading through all the chapters on how stress can wreak havoc to our body, you don't actually get a lot of materials on how you can counter them.So, this is a book on how stress can cause damage to your body. If you're looking for a solid book on recommendations to deal with stress, this might not be it.To the author's credit, he is trying to be as accurate as possible, and therefore I believe he is trying his best to recommend the most scientifically accurate practice to deal with stress; and sadly, there may not be many, although there is a few practical one such as exercise and meditation.


How much fighting-or-fleeing have you had to do lately? For most of us, probably not much. In this very readable but thoroughly researched book, Sapolsky makes the point that a) we need a stress response but b) if you repeatedly turn on your stress response or you can't turn it off when it isn't needed, your response has the potential to increase the risk of disease with measurable effects on memory, and many of our organ systems. The author is self-deprecating and at times really funny, and after the first chapter you'll barely notice the names of all the hormones. I thought there was a fair bit of animal torture going on with all the research (stressing rats and other animals to see what they do) but he is only quoting what has already been done, and he does have the grace to say at one point that he wasn't entirely happy with some of the experiments. The final part of the book is devoted to exploring why some people are good at dealing with stress, finding out what they are doing right, and making suggestions for the rest of us. And you will find out why zebras don't get ulcers, in case that was a burning question.


This is hands down the best medical book I have ever read. In a series of memorable and highly amusing stories and anecdotes Sapolsky explains the complex biology behind why well known principles of psychology, religion, new age philosophy and even voodoo curses work. The central story of the book is how the fight or flight response – the most powerful force that has shaped vertebrate evolution for hundreds of millions of years - is now being turned against modern humans through chronic stress and anxiety. He outlines how modern stress triggers that have nothing to do with immediate survival - whether brought on from traffic, bad bosses, bad relationships - can be linked to exacerbating the development of almost every modern epidemic from cancer to colitis, depression to dwarfism, diabetes to diarrhea, heart disease to infertility to immune disorders. The book concludes with some stories about coping with stress, and the unique psychological profiles of the people who avoid the development of stress-related diseases and experience health improvements with aging in a process he calls “successful aging.”


Right, I finished it maybe a month and a half ago, and never got around to writing a review. I'm going to correct that since this book deserves one.The book starts out describing what stress is. In a nutshell, the body's stress-reponse is what the body does when there is a physical emergency (a lion, for the zebra). In this context the stress-response makes sense. Repairing damage, fighting diseases, digesting food, all of that can wait until the lion is no longer a threat. Then the response can stop, and all those activities put to the side can resume.Which doesn't happen when you live in an environment of chronic stressors.With this setup, the next few chapters go into the technical details of the stress-response. How it's activated, the role that important hormones play, and what changes occur in your body, and how your body goes from there back to its normal state. And when it doesn't, that's where the problems start.The book's has a peculiar style that I enjoy. It tackles a serious, unhappy subject with a light touch and fun to read prose. It's also littered with funny anecdotes that help to lighten the mood. But there are serious moments as well. The second to last chapter that examines poverty is the most powerful part of the book.If you've ever wondered about stress at all, this is an excellent place to start. It's detailed, fun to read and it makes you think.


Let's start with the title. Why don't zebras get ulcers? The answer is that zebras don't sweat the small stuff. When a lion comes to attack a zebra, its body stresses out to the max...salivary glands stop working (you don't need them), food processing and waste control shuts down (again, not required) and all bodily functions are maxed out to assist in one thing: Run like the wind. We humans possess the same capacity. Should you ever find yourself hunted by a lion, your body will probably react like a zebra's right up until your body is lion-feed. But here's the rub: We humans spend a lot of time being worried about less pressing things than outrunning lions (bills to pay, need to clean the house, have to get the kids to school on time, guests coming to dinner), but our bodies react in the only way they know how. And that reaction is a lower level form of the zebra's fight/flight physical response. That's not good. The fight/flight physiological experience is meant to last a few minutes, and come every once in a while, not run ad infinitum. So...zebras don't get ulcers because ulcers are born of the body's reaction to never-ending low level stress that zebras don't experience. Sapolsky examines more than ulcers and it's a fun read. His final chapter on how to help our bodies deal with the modern world contains most of the things you would guess (exercise is critical as is being a part of a community) but that doesn't diminish the chapters leading up to it. If you like this book, Sapolsky also has a class for free in the iTunes University store. I ran a string of two books in a row here on how human bodies are not well-adapted to modern times. Of the two, I would give this book the nod over Lieberman's The Story of the Human Body.


** spoiler alert ** Jen told me I should check out this book because it was part of her reading for her Masters of Social Work program. Sapolsky is an entertaining and fun author and the book breaks down the scientific and physiological aspects of stress response in a way that is easily understood for people like me who don't know much about the subject. I actually kind of understand neurotransmitters now - I'm dangerous.Something you should know before embarking on this book, though, is that it's mostly 300+ pages of why stress is bad for you, in a lot of detail. During the book Sapolsky often refers to the final chapter in which he will give some tips on what can be done to cope effectively with stress. When you get there, though, it really isn't very empowering. Most of the tips come with caveats and qualifications and frankly the chapter is a drop in the bucket of bad news you've been reading up to that point. So you should just know that going in.


Robert Sapolsky is one of my favorite science writers. I generally find his work engaging, informative, and conversational, and “Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers” is no exception. This book is dense! It is jam packed with information on how your body reacts to and copes with stress. By the end of it, I found my self wondering if there was anything that glucocorticoids couldn't screw up. Though parts of it did drag a bit (for me), on the whole I found the chapters in this book to be interesting and full of useful information. I was a bit disappointed with the last chapter, however. I was hoping for more concrete suggestions on how to deal with and lessen stress. But perhaps that was an impractical expectation on my part. I would recommend this book to anyone who worries about what effect their stressful life might be having on their mind and body. This book will clearly lay out those effects in detail, and knowing what's going on (why you aren't sleeping, why you are gaining weight, for example) is the first step to stopping it.

William Mooney

On the cover, Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers has a blurb from Kirkus Reviews saying "First-rate science for nonscientist" and I completely agree. I most enjoyed the variety of ways Sapolsky looked at stress and stress-response. He not only described how stress response affects some of our most important organs and functions, but looks at the science behind stress itself and why it can vary so much among people and animals. Furthermore, he goes beyond describing the biological processes by citing a variety of studies and throwing in some memorable anecdotes. Most importantly, he does all of this in a way that is approachable for people who don't have much previous knowledge on some of the inner-workings of our bodies. However this inevitably means it is a long book, and at times it can seem repetitive, Nevertheless, if anyone is interested in (mental) health, but might not specialize in it, I think this would be a great read.

J. Erickson

This is where I really get “geeky” or over the top excited! This is a classic – by that I mean this is a text book that is easy to read, filled with information regarding the brain, autonomic system, fight, flight responses, stress, and it all is easy to read, understand and fits nicely with psychopathology courses I have taught over the years to graduate students. Further, this is one of the only books I've read where the footnotes have note, and these notes are so interesting that I need to make an effort to read the book first, re-read the foot notes and notes, and then took notes to use for teaching. Clearly it's not Dr. Sapolsky's first day on the job! Further, while this is an older version, the enclosed material is still applicable today. Excellent book and highly recommended!


Sapolsky's primer on neuroendocrinology benefits greatly from a new edition in that the metaphors are more topical and a great deal of old theory has been validated by modern research, showing that psychological stress does indeed ultimately have a physiological component (organ stress due to wildly fluctuating hormone levels). The upshot is that we all need to find our own unique ways of coping with stress based on our personality types and numerous other factors in order to live long and healthy lives (the only seeming universal being that exercise not in excess seems to benefit everyone). Prior to the concluding chapters on these personal habits, Saplosky also notes the inequality in wealth as a tremendous factor in disease related to stress, asserting that humans have created their own stresses through religion and agriculture (a view I've also held all along), and ultimately advocating for social justice based on eradicating these inequalities.

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